Summer 2001

A Partial Guide to the Tools of Art Vandalism

If I had a hammer

Steven Goss

Glass cutter
21 February 1945 Edward Morse, inmate of the Middletown State Hospital, confessed to vandalizing nine paintings in the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven and the Peabody Museum in Cambridge. In his first confession he claimed that he saw two boys in the museum slashing the portraits with a glass cutter. Later Morse recanted and stated that he slashed the portraits (with a glass cutter) because the faces of the subjects resembled persons who had come to his home when he was a young boy and threatened to harm his mother.

Hammer, I
21 May 1972 Laszlo Toth, an unemployed geologist, walked into Saint Peter’s Basilica, strode up to the front altar and climbed onto Michelangelo’s Pietà. While standing to the side of the work, Toth produced a hammer from underneath his coat. With the hammer Toth struck the Pietà while shouting, “I am Jesus Christ!” He hit the work 15 times before being pulled away from it by an Italian fireman and several plainclothes guards. When asked for his reasoning for destroying the work, Toth explained, “Today is my 33rd birthday, the day when Christ died. For that reason, I smashed the Pietà today. I did it because the mother of God does not exist. I am Christ. I am Michelangelo. I have reached the age of Christ and now I can die. Certainly you can kill me; go ahead and kill me; but I am Jesus Christ and if you kill me I am going straight to heaven.” Six months after the attack, Toth, who was still awaiting trial, vanished into thin air. Later reports stated that he was spotted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after that it was reported that he was arrested by the Yugoslavian government for photographing (e.g., spying on) a sugar refinery, for which he received seven years of prison time.

Hammer, II
Apprehended May 1985 Throughout a ten-month period, a demented biology professor broke the noses off of eighty stone statues found in the Villa Borghese Gardens, in Rome. The statues that he attacked are of different figures, both famous and infamous, from Italian history, including busts of Machiavelli, Boccaccio, and Columbus. After he was caught, the police searched him and discovered that he was carrying all of the noses on him in a plastic bag. When asked why he had attacked the statues, he claimed, “The KGB are after me.” He also gave the police a slip of paper that he had with him, which stated, “I am a UFO.”

Hammer, III
29 November 1989 Ten black men armed with sledgehammers attacked a 14x16-foot portrait of Jesse Jackson, entitled How Ya Like Me Now?. At the time of the attack, the portrait was being installed on the street two blocks from the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), Washington, D.C. The WPA commissioned the work as part of an exhibition at its space, entitled “The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism.” The reason the men gave for their assault on the work was that they felt the work was racist because the artist, David Hammons, had represented Jackson as a white male, with blue eyes and blonde hair. While the three men who were installing the work during the attack were white, the artist, David Hammons, is black, and created the work to denounce racism. Philip Brookman, who supervised the installation of the show, explained that the attackers [only saw] “that Jesse Jackson was painted white, they didn’t stop to think about the complexity of the message.” The demolished work was re-installed in its damaged state in the gallery space of the WPA and on 2 December, Jesse Jackson, who claimed to “get a kick out of the painting,” spoke at the site of the portrait about the work and its assault. During his speech, Jackson said, “Sometimes art provokes; sometimes it angers. That is a measure of its success. Sometimes it inspires creativity. Maybe the sledgehammers should have been on display too.”

Hands (+ sharp object)
11 February 1983 While visiting the Ducal Palace in Venice, Stephen Daniel Hellena cut a 17th-century painting out of its frame and then ripped it into shreds with his hands. He was stopped when another tourist spotted him and notified the guards, who tackled Hellena to the ground. While being tackled, the guards said that Hellena shouted, “I protest against the marketing of art works for vile money.”

10 March 1914 Mary Richardson, a militant suffragette, entered the National Gallery in London and attacked Velasquez’s The Rokeby Venus (or, as it is now titled, Venus at the Toilet) to avenge the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of Britain’s suffragette movement. Richardson was immediately arrested after the assault. Richardson had been arrested before for assault, destruction of property, obstruction of justice, and arson—all to bring attention to the suffragette cause. However, the attack against the Velasquez piece was the most publicized of her protests. Before being sentenced to six months in prison, the presiding Judge Wallace asked her if she knew that, “If the picture had been destroyed, no money would have replaced it?” Richardson replied, “Do you realize that no money can replace Mrs. Pankhurst? She is slowly being killed.” Richardson then added, “I think it a shame I had to consider it my duty to do it.” Throughout her sentence she was in and out of jail, going to the hospital for treatment of appendicitis and bruises caused by a guard. After her release she became a candidate for Parliament, but was dropped when it looked as though she might win. She left politics with the desire to enter a religious sisterhood, and even had a scheme for establishing a communist nunnery for social and religious service. Whether she did this or not is unknown.

Ink, I (paintbrush)
21 July 1912 A woman who claimed to be Delaure Frolaine was arrested after coloring in the eyes, nose, and mouth of a portrait by Boucher with red ink and a paint brush. The police took the woman into custody and declared to the press that they believed she was of unsound mind.

23 July 1912 After being questioned by the police, it is discovered that Delaure Frolaine’s real name is Mlle. Prolaine Delarre, a Parisian seamstress. During questioning, she gives her reason for vandalizing the work by saying, “I am miserably hungry and have been unable to find work. I often go to the Louvre, and the sight of the young woman in the picture with a happy smile and luxurious clothes maddened me. I decided to mutilate her hateful face in the hope that perhaps after that people would notice me and save me from starving.” With that she added, “The picture displeased me and I wished to correct what I considered wrong.”

Ink, II (pitched)
27 July 1962 Franz Weng, a German-born artist, entered the National Gallery in London and threw an unopened bottle of ink at Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. After his arrest, Weng was diagnosed as being a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of persecution and grandiosity. The German artist claimed that he threw the bottle of ink at the work because he believed that by damaging the valuable etching, he was in some way connected with Jesus’ mission on Earth.

Knives, I
11 February 1920 Delivigne, an artist, slashed a still life by Mme. Cholet at the eleventh salon of independent artists at the Grand Palais, Paris. It was reported that Delivigne had been looking at the artwork for quite some time, when he drew a knife from his pocket, sliced the painting with two powerful cuts, and then began shouting in jubilation at what he had done. While he was admiring the incisions, several visitors apprehended him and turned him over to the museum guards, who immediately called the police. When the visitors who tackled Delivigne where asked why they thought he would commit such an act, one person replied, “He is mad. Only a madman would fail to appreciate the beauties of such a wonderful futurist work.” The police magistrate agreed with this statement and had him placed under medical care for psychiatric examination. Delivigne would later explain in his confession that his reason for slashing the futuristic representation of flowers was that he suffered from neurasthenia, and that particular picture was too much for his nerves.

Knives, II
April 1986 Gerard Jan van Bladeren attacked the Barnett Newman painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, located at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Van Bladeren slashed the painting several times from side to side with a Stanley knife. During his trial, van Bladerer read aloud a long essay on art criticism and explained that he slashed the painting because he was a proponent of magical realism. Barnett Newman’s work seems to be a favorite of art vandals. In April 1982, Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV, located at the Nationalgalerie in West Berlin, had been attacked with one of the very barriers intended to keep the public away from the painting. The vandal, Josef Kleer, explained afterwards that the painting was a “perversion of the German flag“ and frightened him. As such, it did not belong in the Nationalgalerie and the purchase of the work with public funds was irresponsible. A third attack on Newman’s work occurred on 21 November 1997 when his painting Cathedra was slashed by a visitor in the Stedelijk Museum. The visitor was none other than Gerard Jan van Bladeren.

Knives, III
3 May 1985 Eugene D. Burt, owner of a shoeshine stand in Washington, D.C., attacked several works hanging in the main concourse area of the mall where he worked. At the time of his attack, the main concourse had an exhibition of works that included artists Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell. Burt pulled a knife and slashed 8 of the 75 paintings. Also, with a red crayon, he wrote various religious slogans onto the paintings, some of which read, “John Paul is Good” and “Antichrist Ronald Reagan 666.” When he was finished, he walked to a nearby police station, dropped his knife outside the door, “because he didn’t want to enter the station with a knife in his hand,” and turned himself over to Sgt. James Ryder. Sgt. Ryder stated that Burt had been under surveillance by the police before. He had written a letter to the Associated Press denouncing President Reagan and writing, “Our President is the second least spoken of by Daniel the Prophet of the Old Testament.” The police also said that “the only reason he gave [for the attack] was that he did it to denounce the anti-Christ in Europe, whatever that means.

Knives, IV (bread knife)
14 September 1975 Wilhelmus de Rijk, an unemployed school teacher, entered the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and slashed Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Holding off museum guards for several minutes with his heavy build, Rijk sliced the Rembrandt in more than a dozen places before he was finally wrestled to the ground. Throughout the attack, he claimed, “I have been sent by the Lord. I have been forced to do this by forces out of this Earth.” When questioned by the police, Rijk claimed that the night before he had, “felt a strong urge to watch Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.” Arriving too late to see the work, he took a room in a nearby hotel. The next morning he left the hotel, taking with him a small bread knife he stole from the room service he had ordered the night before. At first he went to the church where Rembrandt was buried, claiming to be Rembrandt’s son. He was persuaded to leave after he sat in the pulpit as service was about to begin. He left the church and went to the Rijksmuseum. He wandered straight to The Night Watch. At first he was asked to leave, because he frightened the guards, but five minutes later he returned and assaulted the work. On 21 April 1976 Wilhelmus de Rijk committed suicide in the mental home he had been committed to by the magistrate.

Knives, V (home-made triple-bladed Stanley® knife)
29 March 1989 Around 1:45pm, A. C. de J. (the full name was not released because Dutch law protects the anonymity of criminals), unemployed, rode his bike to the Dordrechts Museum and walked throughout the space, as the guards described it, “like the type of lunch-time visitor who likes to spend his break looking at a few of his favorite pictures.” Fifteen minutes after he entered the building, he started a slashing spree that would last for two minutes and claim ten works by various Dutch artists. He blamed his actions on workers from foreign countries who live in Dordrecht. He claimed, “By letting all those foreigners live in our country, we are throwing away our Dutch culture—thus, there’s no need for those paintings anymore.” After going under psychoanalytical treatment, it was decided that the law could no longer detain A. C. de J., as long as he promised not to visit a Dutch museum for the next six months. After his release, he began a successful business selling his own works of art. The works, which are monochromatic with slits in them from left to right, represented, in his words, “the conflict between abstraction and realism.”

Fall 1977 Ruth van Herpen kissed a painting by artist Jo Baer, hanging in Oxford, England, and smeared lipstick across it. On November 23, she explained in a magistrate’s court that the reason for her act was that “[the work] looked so cold. I only kissed it to cheer it up.”

13 June 1985 A young man with no identification was arrested for setting fire to a painting of King Philip IV of Spain by Peter Paul Rubens hanging in the Zurich Kunsthaus in Switzerland. The fire reduced the work to ashes, leaving only its Baroque frame. The man was captured during a check of all visitors at the museum’s exits, which were closed after a guard noticed the smoke from the fire. Originally the man answered no questions, only later giving his reason for setting the painting on fire—as protest against environmental pollution.

11 November 1986 Ellis Nelson, an unemployed security guard and Vietnam veteran, entered the Black Forest Inn, located in Minneapolis, and pulled a revolver from under his coat. While patrons of the Inn dove for cover, Nelson aimed his pistol at a large Richard Avedon photograph of two women attending a Daughters of the American Revolution convention. After shooting the women in the photo, Nelson surrendered and was arrested. When asked why he shot the photograph, he replied, “That photo always bugged the hell out of me.” Erich Christ, owner of the Black Forest Inn and the photograph, decided not to repair the work, claiming that the work had now become a popular tourist attraction. He was quoted as saying, “[Folks] like to stick their fingers in the holes and take pictures.”

30 December 1956 Hugo Unzaga Villegas, a homeless man, threw a stone at Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Villegas’s motive for throwing the stone was that he had hopes of being jailed because he was cold and had no money and no place to go. He said that when he entered the museum with a stone in his pocket, “Suddenly the idea to throw it came to my mind.”

Sawed-off shotgun
17 July 1987 Five minutes before closing time, Robert Arthur Cambridge, unemployed ex-soldier, entered the National Gallery in London. Cambridge admitted that he had visited several museums that day looking for a quiet and uninhabited area to commit his act of vandalism. Because November is a busy time for the museum, it took Cambridge a while to find the right space. When he entered the National Gallery most of the tourists were on their way out. He walked around the museum for a minute or two before choosing The Virgin and the Child with Saint Anne and John The Baptist as his target. After taking a place directly in front of the Leonardo Cartoon, he pulled a sawed-off shotgun from underneath his overcoat and fired at the drawing. He made no attempt to escape after the attack and was easily arrested by gallery police. During the police interrogation, Cambridge explained that, “the relevance in my action can be seen in the comparison between the great achievements of mankind contained in the National Gallery, and the scene of degradation and decay as witnessed under the railway arches at Charing Cross.” During the trial he was found unfit to plead in a court of law and was sent to a high-security hospital for testing.

12 September 1907 Valentine Contrel, unemployed, entered the Louvre and used a pair of scissors to vandalize The Sistine Chapel by Ingres. In front of the magistrate, Contrel gave a fluent and lucid statement about the events leading up to and during her attack on the Ingres work, along with her motive for slashing and cutting the painting. She said:

It is a shame to see so much money invested in dead things like those at the Louvre collections when so many poor devils like myself starve because they cannot find work. I have just spoiled a picture at the Louvre in order to be arrested. My name is Valentine Contrel, and I was born at Rouen in 1880. My parents died three years ago, leaving me penniless. I served as a governess in England, but English life did not suit me. I did dressmaking in Paris. I had to get up at four in the morning and work till midnight to earn 13 cents a day, and I could not pay my rent. I returned to my native town, but could earn my living no better there than in Paris. I came back to Paris and was determined to get “run in.” The papers lately mentioned that a man had slashed a Louvre picture. That is what I must do to avenge myself. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon I went into the Louvre. As there was a crowd in all the galleries, I waited until 4:30 when the visitors began to leave, and went to the unfrequented Ingres room, where I chose the Sistine Chapel picture because it was not under glass. I had no intention of making a demonstration against religion. With a small pair of scissors I first tried to cut the Pope’s eyes away, but the canvas was too thick, and I had to content myself with slashing the figure and several others. I had to stop several times for fear of attracting the notice of the visitors. A young woman was copying near me, but she was too intent upon her work to notice me. When I thought I had done enough damage to be arrested, I went away and came here to give myself in charge. As a matter of fact, this is not the first outrage of this kind that I have committed. Some months ago, in a room of the Jardin de Plantes museum, I smashed a glass case containing a fine butterfly, which I destroyed. I was arrested, but the police let me go out of pity for the wretched penury I was in.

While Contrel turned herself in at the museum, it took her several minutes to convince the police that she had actually committed the act. Finally, she had to drag the police to the painting to get them to listen. It was later reported that days before Contrel had arrived in Paris, she was asked by a Salvation Army worker what she planned on doing while she was there, to which she replied, “Nothing. I want to go to prison; I am tried of working. Wherever I go I have to be the servant of somebody or other. I want to eat and drink without working. I’ll have myself sent to prison for life.”

Sulfuric acid, I (container: Champagne bottle)
22 April 1988 A 51-year-old homeless pensioner walked into the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich and sprayed Albrecht Dürer’s Mary as Grieving Mother, Mourning of Christ, and the Paumgartner Altar with sulfuric acid carried in a champagne bottle. He wasn’t caught until a group of school children came upon him. Stunned, one of the students cried out for him to stop, which he did, setting down the bottle and then finding a guard to explain what happened. The man said he attacked the painting “out of revenge,” because of deductions that had been made from his pension to pay for similar attacks he had made on paintings in Düsseldorf and Hamburg. The man also described himself as “psychologically disturbed.”

Sulfuric acid, II (container: syringe)
Apprehended 8 October 1977 Hans-Joachim Bohlmann made a short career out of vandalizing art with a syringe filled with sulfuric acid. His first assault was against Klee’s The Fish in March 1977. After the first attack he continued to travel throughout Germany spraying acid on works by such artists as Rubens and Lucas Cranach the Elder. His rampage went through six cities before he was finally caught in Kassel. When asked for an explanation of his deeds, he claimed that he was pensioned from his job after he had been diagnosed as having the tendency to accumulate aggression. He added that he could only relieve this accumulation through acts of aggression. He said that this, plus the fact that he derived gratification from destroying objects that others loved and admired, caused him to attack paintings in a continuous and malicious manner.

This article is an abridged version of Goss’s A Guide to Art Vandalism Tools: Their History and Their Use.

This article has been revised to correct the factual errors it contained when originally published in the print edition of this issue. We regret the errors.

Steven Goss is currently working on his doctorate at Columbia University, Teachers College. He divides his time equally between teaching and writing. Currently he is a visiting artist for the DIA Center for the Arts education program and writing satirical art columns for ARTless, an online arts magazine.

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